A ‘Most Daring Act’ and the SQM FCPA Enforcement Action – Part I

by Thomas Fox
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Today we honor what was called by British Lord Nelson, “the most daring act of its age”; the capture and burning of the US frigate Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor. In October 1803, the ship had run aground near Tripoli and was captured. The Americans feared that the well-constructed warship would be both a formidable addition to the Tripolitan navy and an innovative model for building future Tripolitan frigates. Hoping to prevent the Barbary pirates from gaining this military advantage, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to lead a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured American vessel. The Americans recaptured the ship and then set it alight. Decatur and his men escaped without the loss of a single American. The Philadelphia subsequently exploded when its gunpowder reserve was lit by the spreading fire.

A most “daring act” seems to be a good way to introduce a multi-part look at the recent Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement action involving the Chilean chemicals and mining company Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile (SQM), which agreed to pay a criminal penalty of $15.5 million and a civil penalty of $15 million for a total fine and penalty of $30.5 million. The company settled with the Department of Justice (DOJ) via a Criminal Information and Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) via a Cease and Desist Order (Order).

There were a couple of unusual aspects to this matter which bear review and consideration by any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) and compliance practitioner, particularly for those with companies headquartered or domiciled outside the United States. The first is that the case was rare for its criminal violations of the FCPA for the Accounting Provisions; both the Books and Records and Internal Controls provisions. The second was that the company’s illegal actions appeared to have no US nexus to the conduct involved and the jurisdictional hook was that the company’s shares trade on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) as American Depository Receipts (ADRs) and the company is required to file periodic reports with the SEC. There were however some excellent points for review by any compliance practitioner regarding the underlying conduct involved.

According to the DOJ Press Release, “SQM knowingly failed to implement internal controls sufficient to ensure that payments from a fund under the control of one of its officers and high-level executives were made for services received and in compliance with Chilean law. Between 2008 and 2015, SQM made donations to dozens of foundations controlled by or closely tied to Chilean politicians. During this period, for example, SQM funneled approximately $630,000 to foundations controlled by a Chilean official with influence over the government’s mining plans in Chile, a key segment of SQM’s business.” It went on to add, “SQM also admitted to falsifying its books and records to conceal payments to vendors associated with politicians, logging them as consulting and professional services SQM never received. For example, in 2009, SQM paid approximately $11,000 to the sister-in-law of a Chilean official, recording the payment in SQM’s books as a payment for services received, despite the fact that the official’s sister-in-law submitted the false invoice solely to disguise payment to a Chilean senatorial campaign.” The sum total was that “SQM admitted having paid nearly $15 million between 2008 and 2015 to vendors despite having no evidence any goods or services were actually received.”

Yet in none of the resolution documents was there discussion of specific bribes paid or obtaining or retaining business by SQM. Moreover, as noted above, none of the payments were routed through the US or the US banking system. Finally, although there were numerous emails cited in the resolution documents, there was no evidence presented that they were stored on a US server or even went through the US in cyberspace.

What does come through loud and clear from the Information is the discretionary fund used by the person designated as “SQM Executive” and identified as Mr. Patricio Contesse G. – former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of SQM. When I say discretionary fund, it was apparently at his sole discretion. Simply put, according to the Information “SQM paid approximately US $14.75 million to PEPs [Politically Exposed Persons] and related parties without effective internal accounting controls, such as appropriate due diligence, documentation or oversight.”

Going more deeply into the results of the company’s internal investigation than was reported in the Information, the company made the following Form 6-K SEC disclosure in December 2015.

“(a) payments were identified that had been authorized by SQM’s former CEO, Mr. Patricio Contesse G., for which the Company did not find sufficient supporting documentation;

(b) no evidence was identified that demonstrates that payments were made in order to induce a public official to act or refrain from acting in order to assist SQM obtain economic benefits;

(c) regarding the cost center managed by SQM’s former CEO, Mr. Patricio Contesse G., it was concluded that the Company’s books did not accurately reflect transactions that have been questioned, notwithstanding the fact that, based on the amounts involved, these transactions were below the materiality threshold defined by the Company’s external auditors determined in comparison to SQM’s equity, revenues, expenses or earnings within the reported period; and(d) SQM’s internal controls were not sufficient to supervise the expenses made by the cost center managed by SQM’s former CEO and that the Company trusted Mr. P. Contesse G. to make a proper use of resources.”

This same disclosure also specifically noted that Mr. Contesse G. (the former CEO) and “Mr. Patricio Contesse F. – former director of SQM,” declined to be interviewed by company’s designated outside counsel performing the internal investigation.

Contesse G.’s involvement and fraud was more than simply using his unlimited discretion to facilitate shady payments. He was actively and intentionally involved in falsifying the company’s books and records. The Information stated, “From 2008 to 2013, at the end of each fiscal year, SQM’s books and records, including those that SQM Executive and others intentionally falsified to justify payments to vendors connected to PEPs, were used for the purpose of preparing SQM’s financial statements. In addition, during each of these years from 2008 to 2013, SQM Executive signed financial certifications as part of SQM’s securities filings that he knew to be false.”

Regarding the internal controls violations, the company’s auditors noted payments made to third parties which “had a ‘high-risk’ connection to PEPs.” These findings were even presented to the full company Board of Directors with the recommendation that adequate internal controls be put in place to prevent such conduct going forward. However, none were.

Also interesting was the lack of notation of how the company’s illegal actions came to attention of the US government. There was no company self-disclosure, no reported whistleblower, no reported referral from another law enforcement agency, domestic or foreign. It may well be there was some type of tip or even electronic information obtained by government regulators.

The actions of SQM senior management were certainly daring in the extreme, one might even say stupid, given their blatant disregard for US law. If companies want the benefits of US securities offerings and prestige, they need someone to counsel them on why they have to comply with US regulations, even in their actions exclusively outside the US. The matter also points to the need for a company’s Board of Directors to step up, ask the hard questions and then take action when management fails to fulfill its obligations to do business legally. Finally, the enforcement action makes clear the need for any company which crosses multiple borders to have a best practices compliance program in place as there will be at least one country which has an anti-bribery/anti-corruption compliance program.

In the next post we will consider how the company was able to receive a 25% discount off the minimum fine range through cooperation and remediation after the US government came knocking.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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